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Uber’s identity is on trial in Europe

Uber’s identity is on trial in Europe


November 29th, 2016

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After years of protests, bans, and regulatory headaches, Uber is finally going to have its day in Europe’s highest court. Today, the European Court of Justice is hearing a case that could determine the ride-hailing company’s future across the EU.

At the heart of the case, brought by a Spanish taxi association, is a question that has long plagued regulators: whether Uber should be treated as a technology company, as Uber has argued, or a transportation service. If the court sides with Uber, the startup would be able to more easily establish itself across the EU and offer low-cost services like UberPop, which connects users with amateur drivers and has been banned in several European countries. If the court determines that Uber should be treated as a transportation service, the company would be subject to far stricter regulations and could even be banned by any of the 28 EU member states.

An inflection point in a five-year battle

The case is seen as an inflection point after five years of disputes between Uber and European taxi associations, which have argued that the startup undercuts their business and that it should be subject to the same regulations. Anti-Uber protests in France turned violent last year, and two European executives were arrested on charges of operating an illegal transportation service.

The court’s decision could also have implications for other “sharing economy” startups such as Airbnb, which has faced its own regulatory problems across the continent. The European Commission earlier this year said it wants to create a regulatory framework for the sharing economy, and urged member states to not implement blanket bans against companies like Uber and Airbnb.

That could be an encouraging sign for Uber, though the court may still decide to punt on the question of Uber’s identity. As the Financial Times reports, the 15-judge panel could rule that Uber has the characteristics of both a technology platform and a transportation service, which would leave things as murky as they are now.

Either way, we won’t have an answer anytime soon, as a ruling isn’t expected until March at the earliest. This is Europe, after all.